2016-06-30
(RNS) At age 8, five years after he heard the fateful words, "Your daddy has died," Kevin Sweeney felt desperately incomplete.

He often spent the hazy minutes between bedtime and sleep lingering on the thought that there was no one to teach him how to be a boy, a man-and eventually, a father. So he hatched a plan. He would carefully choose three men to be his father figures, would watch their every move, and learn.

Sweeney, now 44, is the author of a new book, "Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life." He doesn't know why he was so aware, at such a young age, of his need for surrogate fathers-or so clever in his plan to keep the three choices a secret, even from the men themselves. He does know that Father's Day will bring to mind more than his own dad.

It's the same for Terri Robbins, who turned to the father of her two best friends for affirmation when her own parents abused her. And for Dana Hunt, who found another man to hug after his father died. And for Patrick Buckley, a child of a broken home who turned his young life around under the mentoring of a stranger he met in the park.

All in some way lost their fathers in childhood, leaving gaping holes in their souls. And while there is scant research on the subject of the men children choose to fill that void, experts say there is undeniable power in finding a surrogate.

David Popenoe, professor of sociology at Rutgers University and the author of "Life Without Father," says grandfathers, stepfathers and other men from the extended family can make wonderful father figures. But there's something special when a child finds a male mentor outside the family. "That's because you know the guy is seriously interested in you," Popenoe said, "and not just interested in you through your mother."

*****

Sweeney's father died of congestive heart failure at age 38, leaving a near-penniless wife and six young children. Young Kevin found his first two surrogates quickly among longtime family friends in his close-knit community of San Bruno, Calif. The third, Sherm Heaney, emerged years later.

The father of a high school basketball teammate, Heaney taught Sweeney the first rule of being a dad: showing up. He was at every game. Every time Sweeney made a contribution, however small, he heard Heaney's voice of affirmation.

"Nice pass, Kev."

"Great screen."

After games, fathers gathered outside the locker room, greeting their sons as they came out. Heaney "clearly realized that there wasn't a dad waiting for me," Sweeney said. "My mom was there, but she didn't get basketball. So he always asked me detailed questions, had encouraging comments, and made me feel as if I wasn't alone."

Heaney, now 75, was stunned to learn he'd had such an impact. "When there's a kid around who doesn't have a father," he said, "you don't do it with a plan. You just do it. The most important thing is to care."

Terri Robbins, 51, can't forget the abuse. Somehow it felt deserved, she says. From early childhood, she believed she was lazy and stupid and would never amount to anything, because that's what her mother told her. Her father punched her, once breaking her nose, another time knocking out a tooth, she says.

Robbins' parents died when she was an adult. But emotionally, they had abandoned her when she was a young child. Growing up in Los Angeles-she now lives in the suburb of Manhattan Beach-Robbins turned to Richard Sallop, the father of her two best girlfriends. "Even when he answered the phone," Robbins said, "he'd always ask me what was going on. He'd tell me a joke to make me feel like I could rant a little bit."

It was as if she was drowning in a pool, and no one noticed until this man threw a life preserver. She was 11. If Mr. Sallop could care, maybe she did have some worth. Maybe the violence at home was undeserved.

"It wasn't anything big or showy," Robbins said. "When I look at it now, being a parent myself, I think it's the little things that are most important, the things you don't even think of, a hug, or a `How was your day?"'

Sallop sometimes drove the girls at 6 a.m. to a greasy spoon where they ate cinnamon pancakes stacked on a white dinner plate. "He included her in everything we did as a family," said his daughter, Laura Portney.

Now 82, Sallop downplays his role. "Terri was here a lot with my girls," he said, "and I suppose maybe love spills over, that's all."

*****

Dana Hunt vividly recalls the last time he felt his father's touch: in a hospital, minutes before Roger Hunt's open heart surgery. Dad was in a wheelchair, wearing a yellow robe. Dana, then 6, sprinted to him until his mother cautioned him to stop. Roger Hunt, 46, smiled, motioning the boy to crawl gently into his lap. There, Dana felt the warmth of the terrycloth and the strength of two hairy arms wrapped tightly around him.

The next morning, Dana awoke to sobs from his mother's bedroom, where his sisters had just been given the news. Dana was next.

"You're now the man in the family," his mother told him, kneeling so she could look her son in the eyes.

For years, Dana let no older man get close. He trusted nothing but the memory of his dad. But at 10, he met Lee Thomas, 22, at a model railroad club. They shared a passion for trains and had something else in common: At 9, Thomas had lost his own father to a heart attack.

"He made me laugh and accepted me for who I was," Hunt said. "I always joke that he's the cheapest form of psychotherapy any man could offer." The two, now 39 and 51, remain best of friends. After Hunt's own heart attack in May, Thomas checked in on him every day as he recovered at his Stamford, Conn., home.

They embrace when they meet, patting each other on the back. It's a ritual. "It's the transferring of love to another person, without reservations," Thomas said. "That's what's missing in this world today."

Hunt says the affirming, masculine hugs help him to be affectionate with his own children, ages 6 and 3. "I'll be the first to say that if you don't receive, it's kind of hard to give," he said. "That's the power of touch."

*****

Young Patrick Buckley was a failure at school, but found a hobby where he tasted some success: building models. For his 11th birthday, he asked for a challenge: a radio-controlled wooden model boat, four feet long with a six-foot mast. But when he opened the box, there were no numbered parts or photo instructions, just a blueprint.

Buckley's mother, a New York City book publisher, was caring, but mechanically inept. His father had moved to another state years before; a stepfather had lost interest in Buckley after separating from his mom. So on April 25, 1992-he knows the exact date-Buckley went to Central Park's model-boat basin to find help.

As Buckley remembers it, Hal Wolf, then 72, offered more than advice. "Well, if you like, I could help get you organized and maybe give you a hand with the first step," Wolf said.

A retired engineer with no children, Wolf arrived precisely on time the next day. More than 300 guided work hours later, Buckley's boat was built, his character formed and his trust in at least one man restored.

"If he said he would be there, he was there," said Buckley.

"In the beginning," said Wolf, now 82, "I wasn't thinking too much about being a surrogate father. I simply wanted to help a lad."

When they started, Buckley had been in and out of 12 schools, labeled an incorrigible troublemaker. But Wolf's boat-building course stressed commitment, responsibility, and getting the smallest of details right. Before construction began, homework had to be finished. Buckley's grades soared.

Buckley, now 22, applied the lessons elsewhere, earning a place in one of the country's most prestigious universities. He graduates this month from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with a plum job already lined up. It never would have happened, he said, if a stranger had not been so kind to a questioning boy in Central Park.

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